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I’ve had a two-decade-long dark period of my life.
There were lighter moments that broke through the darkness, sometimes lasting months at a time, but since I was fifteen or so, I’ve been dealing with depression and the self-loathing that goes with it.
I tried medication in my worst moments which only led me to gain a lot of weight (which is depressing), and I tried different forms of therapy to varying degrees of success. I realize now that those lighter moments came from the times I treated myself with love. I had stumbled upon, unknowingly, the practice of self-compassion.
But because I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, I had a hard time maintaining it. It wasn’t until I made a conscious effort to love myself that I finally began down the necessary path of healing and making changes that are working me out of the darkness.
Self-Compassion Saved Me
In my darkest moments, I contemplated a lot of things to cope with my depression, many unhealthy (emotional eating, self-harm, and more). But even in those darkest moments I somehow granted myself enough love to move in a forward trajectory. Even if it felt like I was treading water, I knew that I was worthy of life and love. I didn’t have an outpouring of love for myself, but I knew that I had something to offer the world
Looking back now, it was a form of self-compassion that I was practicing.
My self-compassion was extremely unfocused and not placed where it needed to be: on myself. I was missing an important component in my coping practice, that I was worthwhile.
I thought, and reflexively still do today, that it was selfish and arrogant to view myself in a positive way.
Wanting to take care of myself was selfish. Wanting to love myself and highlight my good points was selfish AND arrogant. Thinking that I was good at something in particular, definitely arrogant.
It is selfish, but not in a negative way, to put my care first; in fact, it’s something I must do with my chronic illness. I have to care for myself first in all capacities if I am going to manage my MS. Recognizing the things that I am good at isn’t arrogant, I don’t have to apologize for being a fantastic cook and baker.
It is important to recognize that I should love myself and embrace what I love about myself. When I start to feel depressed I can reach for love to comfort myself rather than an unhealthy alternative.
It’s not perfect. I will still have depression and dark periods where I refuse to “listen” to reason. But I am cutting them shorter because I remember that I am worthy of my love.
It took therapy and reading Dr. Kristen Neff’s book Self-Compassion for me to understand and embrace the act of self-compassion. Reading her suggestions and practicing her exercises when I have a dark moment helps remove me from negative thinking faster.
And it made a lot of sense to me: I was attempting to show compassion for others as a means of coping with my personal frustrations, but I was truly neglecting myself. Once I started to embrace myself, my compassion for others came easier and lasts longer.
I am the kind of person that needs to be shown something a few times for it to stick. I may have had ideas of being compassionate to former bullies as a means of forgiving them, but I would forget sometimes and cycle back up and start down a negative, stress-filled path of thinking.
Some examples: I replay negative thoughts and memories frequently in my mind. I may have responded to someone in a way I deemed embarrassing and proceed to mentally beat myself up over it. Prior to actively practicing self-compassion, I could spend hours thinking about a particular incident. I would look at it from all angles, berate myself, call myself names, and culminate to hurting myself because it was the only way to manage the now overwhelming feelings I was experiencing.
With an active practice of self-compassion, I recognize what is happening: I am embarrassed over an incident and I am able to talk myself through it. Some things I might say: “if the person was upset over what was said, they could tell me,” “I am not responsible for people’s reactions, I am only responsible for my own actions and I didn’t do anything that awful,” and “since this is bothering me so much, why don’t I reach out and apologize to them?”
Or if I am berating myself over something, I can acknowledge my flawed nature and ask myself what I can learn from my thoughts. It isn’t giving these thoughts weight, but I am saying “I don’t like what I did, so how can I learn from this to prevent it from happening again?” I will then forgive myself and give that inner voice a much needed mental hug before moving on. When I want to go back to those thoughts, I practice what DBT calls “Teflon mind” and allow the thoughts to slip out of my head without granting them any power.
I am not perfect. I still have my moments where I lapse into negative thinking either inward or outward, but I am able to recognize the negative pattern and stop it or allow it to pass naturally rather than rehashing it.
I haven’t timed it, but I know I would spend hours thinking about something and spiral into deep depression whereas now I am probably averaging twenty minutes and no longer spiraling out of control.
I recognize that this works for me and my situation, so it may not be perfect for someone else and their experience. I offer self-compassion as something to try when able to as a means of managing, not curing, depression.
As we go further into February, I will be highlighting self-compassion more and ways to embrace it in your day-to-day practice as a means of disease and life management.
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